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Angela Gervasi / Billy Penn

Why Philly has 2 Rocky-themed races

One of them doesn’t even trace any of the Italian Stallion’s route.

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Angela Gervasi / Billy Penn
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This fall, Philadelphia runners will once again have two Rocky Balboa-themed races to choose from — the Rocky 50K and the Rocky Run. One happens in December, the other Nov. 11. One risked the legal ire of MGM, the other teamed with the studio to make the race happen. One will retrace the footsteps Sylvester Stallone took during a training montage in the second installment of the series. And the other one? Sara Cohen, who signed up for the inaugural Rocky Run 10K in 2014, described it like this:

“I remember thinking to myself, ‘but this isn’t even what Rocky did,’” she said. “He didn’t even run on this side of the river. It was the Kelly Drive side. I just paid $75 to do a 10K, and I do this run all the time. It’s like you don’t even start and stop at the Rocky statue. It didn’t even involve anything to do with Rocky. They’re just calling it the Rocky Run because it’s in Philly.”

And yet the Rocky Run is one of the most popular races in Philadelphia, attracting several thousand runners each year since the race began in 2014.  The expected number this year is about 12,000 and its organizers are thinking about starting “Rocky” races in other cities.

So why does Philly have two?

The tale of two Rocky races

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Rocky50k.com / RockyBalboaRun.com

The Rocky racing trend started in 2013. That’s when Philly Mag alum Dan McQuade published an article retracing the Italian Stallion’s route in “Rocky II” that quickly went viral. The famous training montage, as McQuade pointed out in his post, makes no sense if you know anything about Philly. So a few months later, runner Rebecca Barber organized the first Rocky 50K Fatass Run, capturing the 30-plus-mile route through North and South Philly, Old City and Center City. Barber said she had about 200 participants that year, and the run garnered all kinds of publicity, landing in Runner’s World and on the front page of the Wall Street Journal.

And then, according to website domain registration records, RockyBalboaRun.com was created Dec. 11, 2013 — four days after the inaugural Rocky 50K. Schaefer also received a cease and desist letter from the lawyer for MGM Studios, the company in charge of the “Rocky” series. Fortunately, an attorney she knew from the running community offered some advice. Barber didn’t change the name and kept doing the race, and she’s had no further problems with the studio.

As for RockyBalboaRun.com, it became the landing page for the Rocky Run, which debuted in November 2014. About 7,000 runners participated the first year. Runners paid hefty fees, like Cohen described, and ran on West River Drive. One person, she recalled, wore a fighter’s robe.

“They might’ve played the music or something,” Cohen said. “I kind of assumed it being named [after Rocky] that there was some kind of theme to it.”

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Angela Gervasi / Billy Penn

Rocky Run’s Chicago roots and a New Orleans switcheroo

Chicagoans Nathan Barnhart and Elaine Lau founded the Rocky Run through their company Run MFG. The married couple had previously held races like the Ditka Dash in Chicago — named after Hall of Fame tight end and famed Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka — and now organizes the Cleveland Browns 5K and the Motor City 10K in Detroit. Barnhart said they came up with the concept for the Rocky Run organically while brainstorming ideas for races in cities across the United States, and not from the preexisting Rocky 50K. Only after setting up the website, paying a licensing fee to MGM for the rights to use “Rocky imagery,” and scheduling the first Rocky Run did they learn about the 50K, Barnhart said.

Barnhart did admit he had seen that Philly once held a Rocky Run in 1999. As part of a 24-hour millennium celebration, some 2,000 people ran up the Art Museum steps with Mayor Ed Rendell leading the way. And before that, in the 1980s, New Orleans held a “Rocky Run” marathon as part of some weird switcheroo with Philadelphia, where each city borrowed the other’s customs for a Memorial Day weekend celebration (Philly had a bunch of gumbo and Mardi Gras parades at Penn’s Landing. There’s no link, sorry).

Barnhart is aware his course doesn’t travel over any of the actual route Rocky ran in the movie. The Rocky Run features an out-and-back route on West River Drive starting and ending in front of the Art Museum. Runners do not finish at the top of the steps.

Barnhart said expenses preclude them from running the race in places like the Italian Market or Kensington, or even the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

“We wish we could go through there but it’s terribly, terribly expensive to close down the streets, especially for 10 miles,” Barnhart said. “It wouldn’t even make sense to do the event. The most efficient and logical [place] is the course we have now.”

The races are similar in that sense. The sprawling Rocky 50k didn’t want to spend money to shut down any streets, either. So they don’t. Participants get an upfront warning on the website that there are “no course marshals, and no course markers, and you should not expect any aid either.”

‘The big machine vs the little brave hero’

Barnhart said the Rocky Run is the most popular of Run MFG’s events, and has attracted so much interest the company is considering starting similar runs in other cities where there is no “Rocky” connection. Run MFG would then possibly have a “Rocky” championship at the end of the year in Philadelphia.

The Rocky Run is a for-profit event. No proceeds from race entries — currently $50 for the 5K, $70 for the 10-miler and $120 for the half marathon — go to charity, but the Special Olympics is listed as a beneficiary of the race. Runners who enter are asked to make donations to the charity on top of their race fee. It’s a model employed by other popular races, including the Hot Chocolate and Rock & Roll series.

The Rocky 50K, on the other hand, is free. Participants are encouraged to drop off shoes at the starting line for the Philly-based nonprofit Back on My Feet. Schaefer estimates they’ve collected about 6,000 pounds of shoes, good for $3,000 to the organization.

Jo Buyske has run in the Rocky 50K twice and calls it the epitome of the Philadelphia running community. People complete as much of the race as they please, entering and leaving at differnet times, and support vans pull up throughout the 31 miles with granola bars, waters, stereo systems playing “Eye of the Tiger” and sometimes carrying late-arriving runners. Buyske recalled a woman pulled up to their running group on Columbus Boulevard after staying out too late the night before. She finished the race with them.

Buyske said she prefers longer distances, so she hasn’t done the Rocky Run. But she said she would actively avoid it anyway.

“It’s like ‘Rocky,’” she said. “It’s like the big machine versus the little brave hero.”

Neither organizing group, however, had anything negative to say about the other. In fact, after Billy Penn spoke with both Barnhart and Barber, Barnhart said he reached out and had a conversation with Barber for the first time.

He said it was an “enlightening and amicable conversation,” noting “it was probably three years overdue.”